Just about everyone knows Peggy Lee's Fever, a smash hit from 1958, a song that has endured in American culture. Her sultry voice, smart lyrics, and spare arrangement (courtesy of Ms Lee herself) make it instantly recognizable. What is less well known is that Fever was originally a #1 R&B hit that sounded quite different.
(Peggy Lee, 1940s)
Fever was composed in early 1956 by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell. While Cooley had limited success with other tunes, Otis Blackwell is one of the great figures in early R&B songwriting, writing hits for Jerry Lee Lewis ("Great Balls of Fire") and Elvis Presley ("Return to Sender", "Don't Be Cruel", "All Shook Up").
The story is that a reluctant Little Willie John had to be persuaded to record the song on March 1, 1956. William Edward "Little Willie" John was born in Arkansas in 1937 and raised in Detroit. Signed to King Records in 1955, Little Willie (he was very short), had a string of fourteen Billboard Hot 100 records over the next several years, including several million sellers, including Fever. Little Willie's version rose to #1 on the R&B charts, to be followed two years later by Peggy Lee's take on the song.
Unfortunately, Little Willie was also a violent guy with an alcohol problem. Dropped by his label in 1963, John was convicted of manslaughter shortly thereafter and died in Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla in 1968.